A Note about Sugarbush Draft Horses

I see it over and over again, and no matter how many times it's said, it's still wrong. "Sugarbush Drafts are just an Appaloosa Draft Cross". Uh.... no. The Sugarbush Draft Horse was a breed created many years ago in Ohio. While the initial cross was made using Percherons to Appaloosas, in the many generations following, the breed has been solidified into a consistent type. Saying these horses are "just" a draft cross makes as much sense as saying that AQHA horses are "just" a Thoroughbred cross, American Cream Drafts are "just" a dilute Belgian, or that Morgans are "just" a grade.

Monday, February 20, 2012

A little bit of Crazy

So, last week I was supposed to finish my blog series on Conformation.  Yeah, I was also supposed to finish a fence, work a few horses, and host an SCA event last weekend.

So, it was all going according to plan until about Monday of last week.  At that point, a little snow, and a little more rain put us behind schedule.  So, we put on the big push to get all ready.  Jae's out working long days, but things are going well.  The blog is secondary to the "real" work (i.e. real live ponies in my pasture) and so focus on that. 

And then, Thursday, the forecast starts looking bad.  There's some debate and discussion through the day:  will they be right, will it really rain, and if it rains how bad will it be?  And then Thursday evening the forecast changes to 80% rain.  The SCA event was cancelled.  Boo!

And Friday morning, Jae wakes up sick.  Poor guy, he ached all over, but thought it was fencing.  All week long he had been saying he was out of shape.  Lo and Behold, it wasn't that, but the flu trying to get him (or a cold, who knows).  So Friday he spikes a fever, and is pretty much laid up in bed all day.  Saturday he's better, but I'm achy. 

Yep, and Sunday, I got it.  So here I am today, kinda ok, but just exhausted.  Jae is a complete wuss too, and still just wiped out.  On the upside, this means that I'll be writing all day today I believe, so expect to see the rest of those conformation clinics this week!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Man Behind the Horses - A Valentine's Day Tribute

It's a romance story, like many others, boy meets girl, girl likes boy, they live happily ever after, right?  But the devil is in the details, and sometimes the details make all the difference.

Back in 2004, I made a great friend out of some guy in Canada, who I knew from online.  In early 2005, Jae and I realized we were a perfect match, the kind of match that is just meant to be.  He's strong willed but hates taking charge, I'd be happy to have someone else make the decisions, but take charge easily.  He likes to be told exactly where he stands, and I can't help but tell people exactly where they stand.  Jae loves to work with his hands, but is smart enough to be the brainiac.  I like to work with my mind, but am handy enough to assist.  We are similar in so many ways, and complimentary in others.  Then there's the animals.

I love animals.  Shockingly to most people, the ONE animal I could never live with out, would be a dog.  I will always have a dog in my life.  Next of course, are the horses, followed closely by the cats.  While I love cats, I really don't "get" them like I do the dogs and horses.  Jae though, is the cat man.  I mean, they LOVE him.  He can't go anywhere with out having some strange cat come love on him.  But he loves all animals as well.

Jae always wanted a slew of dogs - and a pack is what I owned when we met.  I had 5 dogs of my own, plus fosters.  He thought horses were amazing, and had always dreamed of owning one.... one day.  Well, at that time, I had 6.

I was finishing up my degree, biology with an emphasis in genetics studies for veterinary medicine.  I had always thought I would 'grow up' and be a research veterinarian.  I love the science of it all, but hate working hands on with people.  What I wanted though, was to work only with animals.

So one evening, over coffee at Denny's, Jae and I started talking about our dreams.  It was the typical "If you could do ANYTHING you wanted, what would you do?" type of conversation.  I mentioned that I thought the world needed a better amateur horse.  Oh sure, Quarter Horses are good, but they aren't exactly built for everything under the sun, and my interests have always been English riding.  Most "low cost" sport horses are off the track Thoroughbreds, a breed that is often more horse then the owner really needs (although one of MY favorite breeds).  I wondered, why can't you get a horse with the abilities of the Thoroughbred, and the personality of the baroque horses, with a price tag a bit closer to the college student, young family,  or retiree's income range?

Regular readers of my blog know how THAT turned out.

Jae listened thoughtfully to me, asked many pointed questions, and was happy to realize that I really did know what I was talking about, and had thought it through.  Then he asks me, "So why DON'T you do it?".  Uh, because horses are expensive?  Because you have to do something to PAY to keep them?  Money, it's always the money.

It all started with Spot, and then leasing "O".  One thing lead to another, until we ended up where we are now.  Jae has never complained once about all the work the horses make for him.  Fencing, broken trucks, barn repairs, thawing out water hoses in freezing weather, he loves it.  When I ask him why he puts up with MY passion, he tells me, "It's not just yours you know, I like the horses too!".

Now, I don't truly celebrate Valentine's Day.  For me, everyday is what people wish that Valentine's Day was.  Jae starts my day with a coffee on my desk, and keeps that thing filled all day long.  He has been known to sneak out while I'm doing my "paper work" and take care of the feed, or stalls, or turning in/out of horses.  In return, I do the only thing I really can for a man this wonderful.  I tell him "thank you".  I tell him that a lot.

Some women might dream of diamonds, gold, chocolate, or roses for this holiday.  Me?  I can't think of a thing I would even ask for.  I have everything I truly desire - a man who loves me, and not only tolerates, but also enjoys the things I do.  I am so much more appreciative of having a man who takes the time to teach me how to update a web page, then I am of a few store bought flowers that will fade away.  I can hear him say "I love you dear" with every hot cup of coffee that miraculously appears on my desk while I am deeply engrossed in lines on horses.  I swear I see the tights and cape hidden under his baggy jeans each time he calmly responds to my panic about a fence down, a board broken, or a tire being flat.  His Clark Kent facade slips each time he keeps me calm while simultaneously corralling the horses, welding a new fence section, or stitching in a buckle on my broken halter that I "need!".

While my dream house might be taking longer then I had hoped, I can't help but be thrilled that we built it together.  Jae takes a quiet pride in being able to make things for me.  Things I truly love and appreciate!  How could I wish for diamonds, when I have a set of wind chimes made from the old fence?  I always would ask him "can't we do anything USEFUL with that thing?  I hate that fence!"  Now, it makes a lovely deep melody when a storm is blowing in, helping to keep me, and the horses, calm while frantically trying to finish up before the rain/snow/wind/tornado comes in.

And Jae turned into a little boy playing with tinker toys while making it.  That was worth as much, if not more, then the wind chimes he made for me.

Jae has his own horses too.  He chose one mare, the meanest craziest, evilest horse of the bunch,  and made her his baby.  She dotes on him, and loves him.  Because of him, that mare has a place in the world, and he tells me that one day, he's going to break her to ride.  To me, it doesn't matter.  That's his pet, and if he just wants to hang out with her in the pasture, that's his prerogative.

But, that's not his only horse!  Oh no.  Quagga, the stallion who very notoriously disliked men, took a strange fondness to Jae.  Q will dance, sing, and make a spectacle for Jae.  For the rest of us, he's a good boy, but for Jae, he's a best friend. 

And yet, I can't get Jae to ride very often.  His passion is in the property, and the details.  Jae loves making things better, and he does a great job of it, but riding is something that always gets put on the back burner.  One day though, I will have him on the back of a horse because he wants to be there, not just because I asked nicely.

So, when other men are scrambling trying to get something to show their woman that they love her, Jae is one upping them again.  He's outside building me a new fence.  Chocolate is nice and all, but a cross fenced pasture is WAY better.

And what does he ask for in return?  All he wants, is for me to not take him for granted.  Everytime he brings me a coffee, makes dinner, cleans the house, builds something I need, fixes something I broke, or performs miracles at the exact moment I really need one, I always find myself thinking "HOW could you take this for granted?".

And so, everyday Jae and I celebrate Valentines day in our own little way by paying attention to the details.  A kind word about a little deed goes a long way in making someone's day better. Having some one appreciate the little things you do always seems to be so much more important then the kudos for the big things.  The devil's in the details, and I do my best to catch every little one of them.

Thank you Jae.

Conformation Clinic: The Hip

The hind end of the horse only carries 40% of the horse's body weight usually.  While training and collection can change those ratios, when relaxed and moving on its own, the horse tends to move on the forehand.  Because of this, the hip angle is often given less importance then the shoulder angle, yet it too determines how a horse moves.

Judging the shape of the muscling on a horse is purely an aesthetic thing.  Horses with lean muscles may be preferred in some breeds (Arabians, Saddlebreds) while horses with bulky muscles are commonly seen in other breeds (most draft horses, stock horses).  Because size and shape of the muscles can be influenced and altered by training and conditioning, I won't go into that here.  Instead, I want to focus on the skeleton of the horse, which can not be changed.

Oh example horse today is Ishka, a 5 year old Appaloosa mare, owned by my mother.

The Lines and Measurements:
The main areas of interest that we are going to look at are the bony protrusion of the pelvis at the flank (Hip bone) to the point of hip - what would be the seat bone in a person.  The point of hip can be felt on the horse's buttocks, and usually can be seen as a slight pointed area below the dock of the tail.  The last point of reference is the stifle, or "knee cap" of the horse.  The horse's stifle is located just below the horse's sheath (in males) on the leg, near where it meets the body at the flank.

The lines made between these angles should form a pretty even looking triangle.  Deviations from an equilateral triangle result in a loss of balance overall, but may be found in horses with specialized breeding.  The equilateral triangle shape gives the horse equal power to carry the leg forward as it does to carry the leg back.

As an aside, I want to point out how little information is really available on this.  When writing this, I started to get all the numbers mixed up in my head, so went to check a few sources (my favorites are here, here and here) I could find tons of people talking about "goose rumps" and "ideal rumps" and such, but no basis for measurements.  With out the numbers to compare to, conformation is little more then an opinion.  But I did find them (and realized my confusion is due to the range allowed).

So, the top line of that triangle there, which measures the length of the pelvis, should be 30% of the horse's total body length.  Longer then that has few problems associated with it.  Rather it's the short hip that has most of the negative impact on the horse.

The angle of the hip is judged against "level" or the horizontal.  Again, it is standard to use a perfectly flat line (when the horse's feet are level, otherwise use the same angle as the ground the horse is standing on) but this results in flaws on growing horses.  

To get an idea of the variance of a horse while it is in an awkward stage of growth, I compare the horse's angles both to "level" and to the horse's center of balance.  I discussed how to find the center of balance previously, both when talking about the shoulder, and the body.  Of course, this method is not perfect, so should then be compared to the measurement against the horizontal.

In the case of Ishka, the angle of her hip is 23 degrees when compared to the horizontal.  Ideally, the shoulder angle and hip angle should be the same.  Ishka's shoulder angle is 44.2 degrees (so pretty much perfect) but her hip angle does not match that at all.  Technically this is a flaw, but it's a flaw that is bred for in many breeds to gain action in the hind end.

What the Hip Angle means for movement:
The more shallow (horizontal) the hip angle, the easier it is for the horse to lift it's hind legs toward its belly.  In Ishka's case, her sloped shoulder gives her a very smooth ride, while her shallow hip gives her suspension and lift in most of her gaits.  Ishka has lovely expression of movement, and easily engages her hind as much as her forehand.  Notice below that even when moving in a lazy way, her hind end has as much lift, if not more, then her forehand.

But there's a downside to it.  The more shallow the hip angle, the less power a horse has from the hind end. You probably have noticed that stock horses and draft horses both tend to have more sloped hips.  This allows them to use their pelvis and femur as a lever against the ground, giving the horse "torque".  The more slope, the more "engine" a horse has from the hind.

Here is Diva showing what I mean.  Her well sloped hip allows her to give this kind of push with ease. 

The Hip Angle:
Of course, as with the shoulder, the angle of the joint to itself is also important.  When discussing the shoulder, we talked about the openness between the scapula (shoulder blade) and the humerus (forearm).  In the hip, it is the angle between the pelvis and the femur (upper leg bone). 

The ideal angle is 90 degrees.  More openness (an angle larger then 90 degrees) means that the horse will have more reach.  This is good for race horses, or jumpers, as it allows the leg to reach completely out behind the horse before the femur comes into contact with the lowest part of the pelvis. 

A more closed angle, or one that is less then 90 degrees, allows the horse to bring its legs under itself more.  This is ideal for the dressage horse, and horses with high action in the hind legs (such as Hackney Horses and Clydesdales).

Ishka, the chestnut Appaloosa mare we've been looking at, has a hip angle of 70.6 degrees. This is considered to be a closed angle, and should give her higher action, but her action is only mediocre.  Naturally, that's because there's more to it!  The hip is connected to the rest of the horse, and it's relation to the horse matters.

Hip Length:
So, a horse should have a hip length of at least 30% of its body length.  Ishka's hip is 30.2% so just barely long enough.
To calculate the length of the hip in comparison to the horse's body, you need 2 lines.  The red line is the hip, as measured from the point of the hip to the hip bone (some may say point of hip to point of buttocks, it gets a bit confusing as "point of hip" refers to many things, depending upon how it is used).  The other red line there is Ishka's shoulder, as measured from point of shoulder to top of withers.  I think y'all can figure out which is which.

The blue line connects the 2, and is the horse's body length.  This line starts at the point of the shoulder, and goes to the point of the pelvis on the buttocks (point of hip, as I have been using it in this series).  Ishka's body measured out to 11.96 cm, while her hip line was 3.6cm.  Again, I use metric because it makes the math easy, and the actual numbers don't really matter, since my REAL horse is much longer then 12 centimeters!  It's all about the ratio of one length to the other, and so long as the image is not distorted, and is to proper scale, the ratio is the same.

So, if you divide the length of the hip (3.6) by the length of the body (11.96) you get the percentage of the body length of the hip.  3.6/11.96 = 0.3017...  or 30.2%.

Effect of Hip Length on Movement:
So, a short hip would be one that is less then 30% of the horse's body length.  A long hip is one that is more then 35% of the horse's body length.

A horse with a short hip has a harder time collecting, because the muscles are shorter in the lower back and upper leg.  This results in difficulty rounding the lower back (i.e. collection) and a loss of driving power (impulsion).  While these horses may be "quick" to move, the speed (think miles per hour) is less then that of a horse with a longer hip.  This can be beneficial in certain disciplines such as cutting where the horse must stay in a flexed position, and make many rapid changes in hind leg placement.

A horse with a long hip is usually idea, but in some cases the hip length can be too long.  This results in a horse who tends to stand camped out, or a horse who may have sickle hocks (more on that with hind legs).  The length of hip actually interferes with the horse's ability to get its own body out of the way of its legs, thus limiting flexibility.  This is a more uncommon "flaw" in horses, since the excess of hip length must be significant (usually over 40% of body length, depending upon other angles).

The Overview:
So, if we put this all together, you can see that most hips are useful for something.  The point of knowing a horse's conformation is to make sure that the horse is working at a job that it can be comfortable doing, and to give the horse the best chance to excel in its discipline. 

The main influence the hip has, is on the movement of the lower legs and back of the horse.  You can not ask a horse to round its back with out asking it to move its hip, simply because of the way the horse is made.  The connections between the back and the legs (which is important in most disciplines) relies strongly on the hip and hip angle in the horse.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse
The Sugarbush Draft Horse tends to have a slightly flat hip, with a slightly closed hip angle.  Ideally the Sugarbush Draft Horse should have a hip angle between 80 and 100 degrees, with the slope of the hip being between 35 and 40 degrees.  This reduces the horse's pulling ability, but gives it impulsion and suspension. 

Since the Sugarbush Draft Horse is not built to pull heavy weight (unlike most draft breeds) but rather is a riding horse, this hip conformation results in a moderately powerful yet very graceful riding horse.  This is the area the Sugarbush Draft Horse excels.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Conformation Clinic: The Body

Today I want to talk about some parts of the body, mainly the back, length of body, and talk more about uphill and downhill.  Our equine model is Cayenne, a 2005 AQHA filly who became part of my family when she was orphaned at 2 days old.

While the "body" of a horse, technically is the whole horse, for today's discussion, it's the main body: everything that is not the head/neck, legs, or tail. 

We do so many measurements on our horses for everyday use - girth length, blanket size, etc. - that it gets confusing when you are measuring a horse for conformational analysis.  The lines for conformation are rarely the lines for equipment, and most times they don't connect where you think they should.  Instead, all of these lines connect to the skeleton.

This is because if you measure the outside of the horse, those angles and measurements change with muscling and weight gain.  Neither Muscle nor fat affect the function of the horse's body though.  Everything ties in together with the skeleton, and we can easily feel many of the horse's bones (and see some) through its skin.

 Uphill or Downhill?
 One of the most commonly discussed and least understood terms used in horses is "uphill" and "downhill". 
There are 3 lines in the picture above.  The green line at the bottom shows a level ground (and I had to tilt this picture a bit to get the mare's feet level with that line, about 1 degree).  The Yellow line is the horse's structural center of balance, drawn from the hip joint to the base of the neck.  The light blue line is the topline, drawn from the withers to the top of the croup.

So when we talk about a horse being "downhill" which line do we use?  Ok, he green one is obviously just for reference, but still, do you actually know?

The problem is that measuring a horse's topline as a basis for conformation has become so common, that most people think it's the rule now.  A horse's center of balance - whether it is uphill or downhill - affects the horse's way of going, and easy of performing specific moves.  Whether those are dressage moves, or cutting moves, the horse's center of balance is still in play.  A horse's top line is really nothing more then eye candy.

Horses with high withers have a disproportionate top line, as do horses with a pointed croup.  Mutton withers, flat croup?  Same thing.  While those bits have their own effect on the overall function of the horse, they don't change the horse's center of balance.  Lets look at a few examples.
 This mare, Arden, has both the same angle to her topline, as her center of balance.  In this case, it doesn't really matter which line you measure.
 Boo though, has a flat croup which makes his top line appear more "uphill" then his center of balance.  This horse is structurally "level", being neither up nor downhill.
And Rico, shown in his yearling uglies.  Yes, I had to turn this picture to get his feet level (he's standing on a hill here, as the fence behind him shows).  But his hip has grown while his shoulder hasn't, leaving his topline to be very downhill.  Even with that though, his center of balance is pretty much level.

So how does this work?  How can the shoulder and hip be different then the overall balance?  Well, that's because what is being measured is the spine, not the outside of the horse.
 Now if you look inside the horse, you can see what we're really measuring.  The blue line goes from the top of the withers, to the top of the pelvis.  The length of the withers, the tilt of the pelvis, as well as the muscle and fat on top of those, will all affect this line.

The yellow line goes from where the spine comes into the shoulder to the hip joint.  You can find the hip joint on a picture by drawing a line from the hip bone (the pointy bit on the flank) to the point of hip.  The hip joint is approximately in the middle of the rump on that line.

I can't tell you which method of measurement is "correct", as the topline has become the most common, but the structural center of balance is the most telling about the horse.  If you know both types of measurements though, it doesn't matter which is more "right".

Body Length
Most measurements for the horse's body are compared against the body length.  To find the length of the body, measure the horse from the point of hip to the point of the shoulder.  This line will always be on a downhill slope.
For comparison, you don't need to go out, see the horse, and measure the real length of this line.  Simply sticking a ruler up to the picture (or a digital overlay ruler) works fine.  So long as you use the same image, in the same resolution for your measurements, they work out.  This is because you're actually measuring the proportions, and not the actual inches of the horse.

So, lets look at where that line is on the horse skeleton:
Here you can see where the bones lie inside the horse.  The point of hip does not actually touch the outside of the horse (there's some muscle that overlays it) but it can be felt, and in most cases seen, on the horse.  The point of shoulder is easily visible in a standing image.

This line really tells us little about the horse by itself, but it's the basis for all of the other comparisons we make in the body.  If something is "short" or "long" it is in relation to this line.

Back Length:
The length of the back is one example of a measurement judged against the overall body length.  The horse's back should be 1/3rd of it's body length, but horses between 1/3rd and 1/2 of the body length are useful for different reasons.  In many instances, you will see this measured with rectangles.  While that works, getting identical rectangles drawn, copied, and moved around the image is only easy if you're very comfortable with digital drawing programs.  I won't even go there, as I'm struggling to use them myself.

Instead, I use the super simply "MS Paint" and just draw lines and use the ruler.  This is the more accurate method, and while not as pretty, it tells me all I need to know.

So the back is measured from the point of the withers to the Lumbar Sacral joint.  If you just went, "The WHA??" don't worry, you're not alone.  The lumbar sacral joint is the point where the spine goes through the pelvis.

Now, the actual joint here is inside the horse, but we use the exterior area of this joint for the measurement.  If you're comfortable with your horse's body, you probably know where it is.  That soft spot in the lower back of your horse.  On a well muscled horse it is not easy to see though.

So, I'm going to pull out a picture of a horse in sad shape.  This is "Moon" one of our Second Chance horses here.  She came to us very thin, but it allowed us to easily see her LS (Lumbar Sacral) joint.
See the dip in her back (inside the red circle with the green arrow pointing at it)?  This is where her spine makes the turn down to go through the pelvis.  It is this "soft spot" that we use for measuring the back, as it's what can be felt by our hands.

So lets judge a horse's back length.  Here's Cayenne, with her back length in white, and her body length in blue:
Her total body length is 11.92 cm, while her back length is 5.14cm.  You can measure in inches if you prefer, but it makes the math harder then using metric.  To have an ideal back length, the horse's back will be 1/3rd the total body length, or 11.92 divided by 3 (=3.97).  So, since 5.14 is bigger then 3.97, we can safely say that Cayenne has a "long" back.  If you divide the length of back by the length of body (5.14/11.92) you get the percentage of the length of back to the total body length (In Cayenne's case that is 43%).

But here is where it all gets confusing.  The "ideal" length of back also depends upon what you want to do with your horse.  Horses with longer backs (1/3rd to 1/2 body length) tend to be smoother to ride, as the back works as a shock absorber.  Most gaited horses are long backed, as an example.  Long backed horses also have more flexibility in their backs.  This can be useful in dressage to get the horse rounded and engaging its hind quarters.

On the flip side, a short backed horse (1/3rd of body length and under) is stronger, and often more agile.  These horses have less worry about straining their back when doing work, and often can work longer hours while carrying weight.  Many draft horse breeds, such as the Belgian Draft Horse, are short backed to allow more power when pulling.

While there's a lot more involved in the body then just this, I want to leave off here.  No one needs a headache, right?  So lets look at what all of these lines means for the conformation of our little Quarter Horse.

Cayenne has a long back, and a level build.  This means that she will have very smooth, non-jarring gaits that are easy to ride.  This type of conformation is ideal for the trail horse, allowing the horse to bend and flex with terrain, and yet strong enough to support the rider.  Her level center of balance is the happy middle between flashy action (uphill) and quick take off (downhill).  In other words she will excel as a "jack of all trades' type of horse.

I will go into more flaws of the body when we discuss overall balance at a later date.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse:
The Sugarbush Draft Horse ideally should have a back length of just over 1/3rd of the total body length.  This falls into the range accepted as "medium long" (between 33% and 45% of the total body length).  This allows the Sugarbush Draft Horse the laxity in the back to give its rider a comfortable ride, while being short enough to keep the action of the legs presentable.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse does not typically excel at highly collected work because of this, but can perform well with proper training and conditioning. 

The Sugarbush Draft Horse should have a slightly uphill center of balance.  This helps allow the horse to round and offers freedom of the forelegs and ease in shifting the balance of weight onto the hind end.  Because of this, the horse's gaits are large, smooth, and pleasurable.

Programming Note:
The next installment of the Conformation Clinic will resume on Monday.  Weekends are a bit crazy around here, so I will need the time to prepare all of the example pictures.  Hope everyone gets to spend some good time with their horses!

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Conformation Clinic: The Forelegs

Yesterday, we discussed the shoulder of a horse.  Today, I want to talk about the horse's front legs, and how to angles of those legs affect a horse's future soundness.  Like the shoulder, there are a lot of imaginary lines involved in measuring this, and those lines can often get overwhelming.  I hope to break them down into something that makes a little bit of sense.

Today's example horse, is Boo, a 13 year old Arabian Gelding.  I've often referred to Boo as my "conformational nightmare" (in a loving way of course) because while he has all the "foof" you can want, his bits and pieces aren't exactly correct.  Before I embarrass the poor guy though, lets talk about the ideal foreleg and it's purpose in the horse.

The Front Leg:
The natural balance of a horse puts about 60% of the animal's body weight on the forelegs.  This means that the front legs are doing most of the work in supporting the entire body of the horse. Good muscling and straightness of bone help to prevent soundness issues.  The size of the tendons as compared to the size of the horse's joints and bones is also important.  They must be large enough to support the weight above, and angled in a manner to be the most efficient.

The pasterns should slope at the same angle as the shoulder.  This allows the joints to have a spring effect with out damaging the internal structures.  When the angles are the same, it minimizes the forces acting upon the connective tissues.  Since none of us wants a physics lesson, you'll have to trust me on this.  The pasterns should fall within a range of 3/4 to 1/2 the length of the cannon bone.  More then 3/4 the length of the cannon is considered long, while less then half is considered short.

Ideally a horse should have a forearm longer then the cannon bone.  This allows the horse more length of stride with less effort, and absorbs some of the concussive forces (from the impact of the leg striking the ground).  A short forearm will give the horse more "action" but can also inhib a horse's speed abilities.

Leg Placement on the Body:
Ok,  so we know what we should be looking for, the big question is, how do we figure it all out.  Many of those phrases are pretty vague and while they seem to make sense, our confusion appears as soon as those dreaded colored lines show up on a horse picture.  Uh oh, I think I can see some now!
Those red lines may look familiar from the discussion on shoulder angles yesterday.  The blue line is measuring Boo's withers to his elbow.  Ideally this line should be straight up and down (vertical) but you can see it's not.  The yellow line is where the vertical should be.  One of the things that becomes aparent from that triangle and vertical line comparison, is that Boo has a shallow chest, hence his legs are not able to be placed in the ideal position.

I chose Boo, because he is a wonderful example of one wrong angle setting the rest out of place.  If you look at the slope of his shoulder, you can see that it is very steep.  This means that Boo should have a jarring gait that tends to be short and choppy.  And yes, you can ask any one who has ridden him, and they will tell you this is a fair assessment of his way of going.  But, that upright shoulder moves his withers forward, puts the point of his chest in (toward his body), which makes that blue line have to slope back to meet his elbow.  In other words, his center of balance on the forehand is not vertical, and thus causes more wear and tear on his legs.
Here is a horse with a much better leg placement.  Keeley is a 22 year old Quarter Horse mare.  You can see here that her withers to elbow line is not quite vertical, but the mare is leaning forward (for the cookie used to get her ears up).  The slight variation shown here is well within what is considered an ideal range, especially considering the mare is not standing perfectly - and really, how often DO they stand perfectly?

You can also see that Keeley has a much better shoulder slope, but a tighter shoulder angle (the longer red line is laid back more, but the joint isn't as wide on the grey horse as the bay).  This indicates that Keeley will have some inhibition in stride length, because of how she's put together (and oddly, she tends to take small steps).

Notice how the yellow line on Keeley (grey mare) falls almost perfectly down the backside of her front legs?  This is the ideal conformation placement of the legs in relation to the rest of the body.  Boo's legs (the bay gelding) peek behind the yellow line, a conformational fault often called "camped under" "standing under itself".

Straightness of Leg:
You can already see from the placement of the leg on the body that Boo's front legs aren't ideal, but lets look into this a bit more.
The red lines again show the points of his wither, point of chest, and elbow (from top down).  The yellow lines are "guide lines" and are perfectly vertical.  The rightmost yellow line is straight down from his elbow, and the leftmost is striaght up from the tip of his hoof.  This is the ideal placement for his leg - no part of his leg should fall outside these yellow lines, but his pastern does.  The pink line in there, is placed at the center of his upper arm bone, and is also vertical.

Now, lets pick apart the poor gelding's legs!  Starting from the top, and working our way down, you can see that the back side of his leg does not line up well with the right most yellow line.  This is because Boo's leg attaches too far forward in relation to his center of balance, and so he must stand "under himself" in order to keep from tipping over.  Intense impact, such as jumping, higher level dressage movements, or riding through difficult terrain would be hard on the soundness of this horse's legs.

Calf Knee:
Next you can see that the front edge of Boo's leg seems to fall further away from the left most yellow line as you move down.his leg almost makes a backwards C shape"
The green line shows the backwards C shape I was referring to above.  This fault is known as calf kneed (although Boo's version is minimal).  It is commonly seen in horses who stand under themselves, but is more of a conformational concern in a horse who has a good base to its leg.  In Boo's case, this is caused by the pressures of gravity pulling against his angled leg support causing slight hyper flexion.  In a horse with a straight base of leg, being calf kneed is a sign of a weak carpus (front "knee") joint.  Horses who have a weak carpus often will show some signs of being unsound very "young" (mid teens) and require light riding and supplements for their comfort.

In all honesty, I can't think of a single horse who is back at the leg, and doesn't show some form of a calf knee.  I'm sure they exist, but these 2 faults often go hand in hand.

Camped Out, or Standing in front of him/herself:
While Boo is a typical example of standing under himself, the reverse is also a flaw.  Horses whose legs attach behind their center of balance must stand with their legs out in front of their body in order to hold the weight.

This flaw is rare enough that the only good example I could find was a diagram (shown at left).

In most cases, horses who have this type of stance are uncomfortable.  Navicular, laminitis (founder) or other hoof related issues can be the cause of it.  In some cases this fault can be corrected with proper hoof care, in others - such as Navicular Disease/Syndrome - the problem is with the connective tissues (tendons, ligaments).  In most cases proper farrier care is extremely important to keep the horse comfortable. Minor examples of being camped out in the front may be sound for light riding, but I highly recommend veterinary advice before making that decision.

As you can see, camped out is a much more serious flaw then camped under.  While a camped under horse must have it's conformation taken into consideration for the work it is asked to do, most camped under horses are sound and make great trail horses, or light competition mounts. So long as the horse's conformational faults are realized, and their job is chosen based on their physical limitations, the unsoundness issues mentioned above can be avoided.

Over At The Knee:
The opposite flaw from Boo's "Calf Knee" is what is called "over at the knee. This is most commonly seen in young horses, as they grow.  Here are a few examples:

The chestnut Appaloosa gelding (top) shows a minor "buck knee" while the mule (bottom) shows a more obvious example of this fault.  The Appaloosa image was kindly submitted by Mary B, and the Mule from Anna L.  Thank you for the examples ladies!

Here's the colored lines to make the flaw more obvious in case you're still trying to see it:
Notice the bend in the front legs?  That is the flaw that "over at the knee" or a "buck knee" (same thing) causes.  This means that the horse's legs are structurally more inclined to fold, rather then support the horse.  Now, these are both babies, and we tend to not worry too much about being over at the knee as a young animal.  This is because every joint bone has a growth plate on it.  The growth plates are sections of bone that have not yet calcified, and leave room for expansion.  The "I hate science' version: this is where the growing happens.  As these bones expand and lengthen, their relation to the ideal angles of the animal will alter as well.  Often times a growth spurt causes all the bits to get out of line with each other, but time corrects it. 
So, while this is something to be aware of, do not judge young animals too harshly for being over at the knee.  Once the horse is mature though, this is a significant conformational flaw.  Animals who are over at the knee when mature tend to experience more stress on all the joints of the leg.  Just like with Boo above, their conformational faults need to be taken into consideration when choosing a job for them.

Above is the Appaloosa gelding shown at 2 years of age.  While you can still see a slight bend in his carpus angle, it is greatly reduced from his younger picture.  Of course, his dark knees help to amplify the appearance of any variation.  By the time this boy is fully grown (around 6 in horses) I would expect any deviation to be so minor as to be within "normal" range.

The Pasterns:
Ok, so the last part of the leg is the pasterns.  So often I have heard people talk about a horse with "long pasterns" or "short pasterns" or "upright" pasterns.  Yet, when I went to double check my own knowledge, there's rarely ever given a base of comparison.  This leaves people trying to guess more often then measure, and results in a lot of confusion.

But there is a basis of comparison.  The horse!

The green line shown here is Boo's cannon bone length, while the pink line shows both the length and slope of his pastern, and another pink line shows the slope of his shoulder.

The horse's pastern should slope at the same angle as the horse's shoulder.  This creates symmetry and efficiency in the horse's shock absorption.  in Boo's case, the angles are pretty close, his shoulder angle is 52 degrees, and his pastern angle is 54 degrees.  The ideal of course is 45 degrees, with up to 50 degrees being acceptable.  Boo, as we've talked about before, is rather steep in his angles. 

This means that when his legs hit the ground, the concussive forces of that impact are sent right up the leg bones, and into the rider.  In other words, his gaits tend to be jarring.  This is similar in physics to a tight spring as compared to a loose one.  The more area available to flex, the more energy goes into flexing those areas, and not flexing the rider's hiney.

A more laid back angle allows this.  Just think about those lines as pieces of wood, joined with a single nail through them.  Push straight down, and it's likely that the nail will not hold the wood in place, and the angle will ultimately bend into an L shape.  The more upright the pink lines, the more you have to push to get the L.  That force - used to flex the joint - is the energy of impact that is absorbed by proper joint angles.

Upright pasterns (straighter then 50 degrees) make the horse prone to health issues such as Navicular, ringbone, arthritis, and splints.  Overly long pasterns are directly correlated with bowed tendons and leg fractures.  Of course, these are the extremes of problems, but horses with these conformational flaws are more likely to experience them then a horse in the ideal range.

Now, not only is the angle important, but we also have to look at the length of the pastern. Using a measuring stick against Boo's picture, his canon bone measures out to 2.3cm.  His pastern is 1.2cm.  The ideal length for his pastern is based upon the length of his cannon.  At 2.3cm, his pastern should be between 1.15 and 1.725cm.  At 1.2cm, it falls on the shorter side of ideal.

Long pasterns increase the leverage action on the tendons and ligaments of the pastern joint.  This stretches them out, and can cause tears, bows, and other soft tissue injuries easier.  Think of a pry bar.  We all know that a longer pry bar means more force on what ever it is we're trying to pry up.  Well, in the horse, his pastern is that prybar, and the thing being "pried" upon is his own joint.

Too short of a pastern reduces the buffer for impacts though.  Instead of prying at the pastern, we're smashing on it each time the horse's foot hits the ground.  With an average weight of 1000 pounds, that's a whole lot of force to be exerted on such a small area.  The flexibility of a medium length pastern absorbs that, and dissipates it.

The Overview:
We want our horses to have good sound legs.  This means straight support under the horse, and angles that are moderate.  Too much is just as bad as too little in the legs, and with the amount of use a horse gets out of its legs, I personally consider this to be the most important piece of conformation in any horse.

I did not go into size of the bone here, as I will cover that when I get to overall balance.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse:
Now, lets see how all of this works when "super sized".  Today's examples have all been "light" horses (common saddle horse size).  With drafts, the front leg conformation really isn't any different, just larger.

The Sugarbush Draft should have a straight leg, set well under the body.  The joints should be large and "dry" (without excess fat or tissue) and the lower leg should be strong and dry.  The pasterns should be of medium length, and well sloped, with solid well formed hooves to support the horse's weight.

In other words, a good front leg is pretty much universal across all breeds and types of horses.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Conformation Clinic: The Shoulder

Previously we have talked about the horse's Head, and the conformation of the Neck.  Working our way back one more section, we get to the shoulder of the horse.

The shoulder of the horse is a very misunderstood, yet extremely important area of conformation.  The shoulder affects much of the horse's movement, it's balance, it's neck attachment, and is what makes the difference between a bouncy trot, and a wonderful smooth trot.  One of the main problems I see in conversations about a horse's shoulder is what exactly the shoulder is.

The mare above is a perfect example of the confusion.  Notice the dark varnish mark against the base of her neck?  That is not her shoulder angle.  See the shape of her shoulder blade just under the skin?  Nope, that's not her shoulder angle either.  The divot where her neck meets her body?  you guessed, not her shoulder angle.

So what IS the shoulder angle then?
The slope of the shoulder is the "angle" that most people refer to when talking about equine conformation.  This is not the "shoulder angle" exactly, but it is an important piece of conformation to understand.

Here's a good diagram of what we're going to be talking about:
The horse shown above is SHC O Sweet Surprise, or Sweetie.  This is my SDHR filly shown at 18 months of age.

The slope of the shoulder is what many people refer to as the "shoulder angle".  I actually have been known to do this myself.  It's easier to say, and kind of flows off the tongue.  Technically though, it's not correct, but I'll get to that in a minute.

The Ideal Shoulder Slope
The shoulder slope, or slope of the shoulder (the terms are interchangeable) ideally should be a 45 degree angle, as measured between the top of the withers and the point of the shoulder.  The problem is, no one ever talks about what we should measure this angle against.  A line does not make an angle.  Recently, I came up against this problem when doing a conformation analysis of a young colt.  His shoulder looked like it should be "good" to my eye, but my measurements kept telling me that it was all wrong.

The 2 red dots in that image are the palpable points on the horse.  This means the parts you can reach your hand up, and feel.  The yellow dots are the points we talked about in the previous post, regarding the neck.  They come into play as well.  The top of the withers, the upper red dot, is often where the mane hair stops growing, but is always the center of the rounded bony wither structure.  This is the same place we use to measure our horse's height.  The lower red dot is the point of the chest.  This is the hard bony point you can feel when you touch your horse.

The angle formed where the red line meets the black one is 49 degrees (on Sweetie above).  A 45 degree angle is the ideal, but a shoulder between 45 degrees and 50 degrees is considered "good".

How to measure Shoulder Slope
When you look at that line though, you can see that it's an imaginary line, and there's no true edge or angle on the horse in that section in real life.  This is where a lot of problems come in.  Google shoulder angle, and you'll see it.  Horses with lines drawn where their neck meets their body, angles that have nothing to do with the shoulder slope, and other random lines placed on ponies through the use of MS Paint and other digital drawing software.
These are examples of the myriad types of "shoulder angle" lines I have seen drawn on conformation critiques.  Only the red line is the correct one.  I don't even want to tell you what the others are connected to, because that might cause confusion.

Most often, this line (the one I have depicted in red) is measured against the line of the horizon, or a perfectly horizontal line.  So, does that mean that as a horse ages, the horse gets a better or worse shoulder?  Well, no. Even though the horse grows, and its relation to the ground changes (hip high, level, shoulder high, and such) the horse's angles stay consistent against its own body.  If you do a whole lot of complicated math, measuring and add more colored lines then there are colors to use, well, you can determine the proper angle.  Now, the easy way is to measure the horse at a few stages of growth, and average out the results.  Another good way is to measure the horse against its structural center of balance.

This green line is Sweetie's structural center of balance.  It is measured from where her femur meets the hip (the ball and socket joint of the hind leg) to where  her spine at the base of her neck meets her body/shoulder.  As you can see, Sweetie is slightly uphill, structurally.  When the slope of her shoulder is measured against that green line, her shoulder slope is 50 degrees. Only a 1 degree difference.

Now, "eye balling it" I look at Sweetie and tend to think she's a hair straighter then I like in the shoulder.  A measurement of 50 degrees sounds just about right to me.  Considering that she was at a phase of growth that had her "shoulder high" the measurement makes a bit more sense to me.  Since she's only slightly gangly, this angle is only a degree different then if she is measured against the horizontal.  In other words, not a big deal in her case.

But if she was at a downhill stage of growth, this measurement would stay pretty much consistent.

This is because if her front legs are short, or her hind ones are long, or her bits and pieces can't figure out where they want to be, her spine still has to run through her shoulder area, across the back, and into the hip.  The spine isn't going to be shifting its path in her body, and her hips and shoulder aren't going to be suddenly changing the way they attach to the other bones in her body.  Oh sure, she's an ugly mess in the picture above, but structurally, she's still pretty decent.

Shoulder Angle
Now, you remember that shoulder angle we talked about?  Well I want to touch on it a bit today, but will go more in depth on it tomorrow.  You see, the Shoulder Angle is really more a part of the foreleg, and not the horse's shoulder.

The actual "shoulder angle" is the angle created from the slop of the shoulder, and the slope of the humerus (upper arm bone, which is located in the chest of a horse).  The top red dot is on her withers, the next lowest is at the point of her shoulder, and the lowest red dot there is at the point of her elbow.  You can feel the bony part of a horse's elbow, and the range of location varies by conformation.

This angle is determined by the set of the scapula (shoulder blade) in the horse, and the length of the humerus (fore arm bone).  For Sweetie, this angle is 87 degrees, and I have to keep in mind that her leg is set slightly back, which will raise the point of elbow slightly..  This angle should ideally be at least 90 degrees, and up to 120 degrees is considered good.  The larger this angle is, the easier it will be for her to swing her legs forward, and raise her knees to her chest.

The longer the bone in the forearm, the lower the point of elbow will be, and the larger the angle of the shoulder.  The set of the scapula (or slope of shoulder) is not nearly as important on its own, as it is in relation to this angle.  A very upright shoulder with a horizontal humerus could result in an angle of 90 degrees or more, and that straight shouldered horse would still be a nice ride, AND be able to haul weight.

The Straight Shoulder
Wait, did I just say something that made it sound like there's a good reason for a straight shoulder?  Yep, I sure did!

Back in the day when the horse was the only form of horse power there was, draft horses were used to pull weight.  Need a tree stump removed?  Just hitch up your power house, and it'll be gone in no time!  For these horses, the straight shoulder is ideal.

Photo: Carol Mitchell
The more sloped a horse's shoulder, the more work that horse has to do when pulling weight behind him forward.  This is because the horse has to pull the weight not only forward, but also up.  The straighter the shoulder, the less "up" and more "forward" the horse's effort gives.

Look at this lovely hard working Belgian draft here.  This is a perfect example of a horse leaning into the harness, and using his conformation to his advantage.  He pushes his shoulder blade against the collar, working as a lever against the actual harness, uses his neck to adjust the balance low and forward, and his hips and hind legs are the power to move what ever he is hitched to.

A good way to envision this, is to thing of moving the horse's collar, and the weight attached to it, with a pole.  You can either poke the pole in the ground, and heave on it - in which case the point of the pole closest to your hand would move more vertically, leaving the pole in a straight up and down angle when you're done, or you could try to shove the pole under the harness and lift it up, keeping the same sloped angle, but wearing out your arm and back muscles.

Now lets look at him with some colored lines.  The red of course is the horse's shoulder angle.  Notice how upright his shoulder slope is, and how horizontal his humerus is.  The resulting angle is nearly 90 degrees, but again this horse's legs are in motion, so we give him a buffer.

The green arrow is the direction of force working against the horse.  It is down and back, and the motion of this picture makes it easy to see.  The collar is almost perfectly perpendicular to the direction of force.  This makes the horse's effort that much more efficient, even though the horse technically has a "bad" and upright shoulder slope.

The Over View
When talking about equine conformation, shoulder is always one of the most talked about things of a horse.  Often the horse's shoulder slope is used as proof of the horse's quality, and yet, on its own it means very little.

The angle of the shoulder and upper arm bones is the true measure of a horse's gait.  And open (90 degree or greater) angle allows the horse freedom of movement, and a gait that is a pleasure to ride. While this is most commonly found in horses with a shoulder slope between 45 and 50 degrees, it is not exclusive to the slope of the shoulder.  The length of the upper arm bone is actually the more important feature.

And while we've been told that a "straight shoulder" is a horrible thing in a horse, few people truly know what that means, or why a straight shoulder even exists.  The horse's conformation is not something that can be looked at in bits and pieces, but rather we need to look at a horse as a whole, and measure its form against its function.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse
I always include how this applies to the Sugarbush Draft Horses here at the end.  This is because our horses are a bit misunderstood, and our method of reviving the breed (allowing cross breeding to unregistered horses with the right conformation) confuses many people.

The ideal Sugarbush Draft Horse is built for riding, and for pulling light carriages.  These horses are not typical drafts, and are poorly suited to hauling heavy weights because of their conformation.  The ideal shoulder slope is 45 to 50 degrees, with the average SDHR horse being on the high side of "ideal".  Much of this is due to the ancestry of other draft breeds - breeds that were bred to pull weight.

The important thing though, is that the Sugarbush Draft has a moderately open shoulder angle.  Most SDHR horses have a shoulder angle between 90 and 95 degrees, and breeding for openness between the scapular and humerus is encouraged.

The Sugarbush Draft Horse has a moderate leg action, and a lovely forward extension because of the shape of this angle.  This means that the rider feels a smooth, but forward gait under them, with little jarring.